The etiquette on a bottle of Arietta wine displays a couple of bars of the Arietta theme from the manuscript of Beethoven’s last piano sonata, No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111. When I was asked to compose a piece in honour of this fabulous wine, I naturally decided that this theme should have a key role. But whereas Beethoven produces a set of rigorous variations with a steadily increasing intensity curve (the Arietta theme, serenely beautiful and calm in the beginning, culminating in what can best be described as the first ragtime in music history, before fading back to serenity) – my Kongsgaard Variations are more like meditations, with no directional process.
The music floats aimlessly through the centuries, displaying reminiscences of Baroque, Folk, Renaissance and Romantic musics, but always with Beethoven’s Arietta theme at its epicentre. Although scarcely audible, the piece actually starts with music directly derived from the Arietta theme, leaving out the melody but maintaining the same rhythmical flow and harmonic landscape, as if Beethoven’s music is dreaming about yet another variation of itself. Arietta means ‘little song’, and these opening bars are then cloned and mutated into other ‘little songs’ that occur on several occasions in the piece.
After the introductory section the first violin takes on a simple, thoughtful solo motif which is again cloned and mutated and appears later in the piece in different shapes. Then comes a viola solo – joyful, as in a trance – which leads to a section where all instruments sing in praise of wine and music. Shortly after the middle of the piece, we hear the Arietta theme for the first time, but strangely distorted and stretched, in the same way a cubist painting twists the motif it uses – almost as if the music is being played backwards. A simple chorale follows which lands us in the music that began the piece, and then, finally, comes the first part of Beethoven’s theme in C major in its pure, original shape. This is succeeded by the second part of the theme in A minor (here again distorted in the manner described earlier) before the music evaporates into a mist of harmonics.
Kongsgaard Variations is warmly dedicated to John and Maggy Kongsgaard.